Friday, February 24, 2012

The Garner Files

The Garner Files by James Garner and Jon Winokur
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I never read celebrity biographies, but I couldn’t resist The Garner Files. I remember watching The Rockford Files Friday nights when I was a kid, and to this day whenever I stumble across a rerun on some classic TV station Jim, Rocky and Beth feel like old family friends (I was never crazy about Angel). So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that James Garner had published a memoir. And it was better still to discover that The Garner Files is a wonderful read: witty, engaging, self-effacing, and arm-around-your-shoulder intimate.

His is a literal rags-to-riches story with the requisite elements of poverty, abuse and abandonment, but Garner never plays it for pity or cheap “inspiration.”  He comes across as genuinely amazed by his eventual good fortune, but he’s honest enough to acknowledge that his hunky good looks helped him as much as his native intelligence and stubborn inability to let himself be bested by anyone. It’s revealing that Garner can’t stand to watch himself on screen, but he will sit through all three hours of The Great Escape (1963) when it turns up on cable because the screenplay and the performances of the rest of its all-star ensemble cast still move him.

There’s no mistaking Garner’s voice, and the pages of this memoir positively drip with his wry drawl. “Here’s this dumb kid from Oklahoma,” he writes, “raised during the Depression, comes to Hollywood, gets a career, becomes famous, makes some money, has a wonderful family . . . what would I change? Nothing. I wouldn’t change a thing.” That voice enlivens even the most boring golf stories, and it makes the chapters on filmmaking and auto racing enthralling.

Formula 1 racing never held much appeal for me, but after reading Garner’s memoir I had to add his 1966 film Grand Prix to my Netflix queue, and Michael Cannell’s much-lauded The Limit: Life and Death on the 1961 Grand Prix Circuit is waiting now on my to-read shelf. After that, Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans. Film buffs will enjoy Garner’s accounts of his epic battles with studio bosses as much as his recollections of working with the likes of Julie Andrews, Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen (his Hollywood neighbor). In fact, the admiring portrait he paints of Clint Eastwood has me thinking I may need to read another celebrity bio: Marc Eliot’s hefty American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood

That's a sure measure of a really good book: when it leads you to others.

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